Tag Archives: Trinity

Abusing the Apophatic: The Turn To Mystery As a Cop-Out

losskyIn our postmodern culture, talk of “mystery” is all the rage among religious folk.  Can’t explain something? Mystery.  Don’t like historic Christian teaching but still want to sound like you’re in continuity with the Tradition? Mystery it is.

The problem is that this is an abuse, a mischaracterization of the apophatic way (sometimes called “negative theology”) on that which which twists a valued mystical tradition into a cover for all kinds of bullshit.

Friends, please hear me out: stop using the apophatic as a cop-out.

Don’t believe me that this is a problem? I could cite my own personal experience, but we are all aware (I hope) that individual experience is just about the worst possible resource for knowledge in the Christian life.  To be sure, I’ve been in numerous conversations where my interlocutor attempted to dodge the particularities of Christian teaching by giving a nod to mystery and to the apophatic way. Let’s look instead two examples, in which I have added the emphases to highlight today’s topic.

Exhibit A

A piece by Gene Marshall over at ProgressiveChristianity.org mentions mystery several times. He goes so far as to reduce God to capital-M ‘Mystery,’ like so:

At the same time, “God,” as used in the Bible, points to an actual experience, an actual encounter with, how shall we say it, the Ground of our Being; the Mystery, Depth, and Greatness of our lives; Final Reality; Reality as a Whole; the Mystery that will not go away.

Drawing on the existentialism of Tillich and others, Marshall avoids anything particular about God by the apophatic turn.

Exhibit B

I generally try to avoid quoting comments, but in this instance it just fits too perfectly (I also mean nothing personal by this, as I have no idea who this particular commenter is).  Once again, in a discussion about Christian doctrine, the commenter uses the apophatic turn to stay in the realm of generic, personal-experience deity:

If you believe that God exist as three distinct persons and one of those persons incarnated as a human being in first century Palestine, good for you. It maybe right. Seems like you are 100% sure that Nicene Creed is the true doctrine about God and I am glad to hear that. Personally I cannot bring myself to believe that. I am agnostic about it. I am not an atheist. I believe that being similar to understanding of God most likely exist, more similar to understanding in Advaita Vedanta, Stoicism, Peripateticism and Process theology. But I maybe wrong. I am more of fan of apophatic theology.

Note here that “apophatic” has little content save being against the Nicene Creed and similar to a variety of non-Christian faiths and Process theology.  Further note how similar the above comments sound to that of Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada pastor fighting to keep her credentials because everyone else knows she’s an atheist while she maintains she’s evolved into a higher, non-theistic conception of the divine. Read: poppycock.

The Truth: The End of the Apophatic is the Holy Trinity

The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?
The real mystery: how did Kevin Smith ever make a movie this bad?

What’s truly sad is that apophatic theology is a valued part of Christian teaching, particularly in the East.  While the vast majority of Christians today have domesticated the transcendent, attempting to pull God down to our level and make the Divine only a friend, or a healer, a get-out-of-jail-free card or a cosmic soup of affirmation, the apophatic tradition at its best reminds us to keep silent before the incomprehensibility of our Maker.

Oh, Mystery there is: the One whom we love is too holy for words and, as Israel attests, the ‘I AM’ whose name is too holy to pronounce and too grand to scribble, this God, our God cannot be named by our limited imaginations, tamed by our feeble intellect, claimed for our puny projects.

But Christians, you see, revel not just in mystery but also in paradox.  This unutterable God has made Godself known to us in a particular way.  The goal of the apophatic, the Mystery that we claim as Christians, is named not by our own fatuous grasping but by God’s gracious condescension His creatures.  The great Russian Orthodox scholar-priest Vladimir Lossky thus reflects,

“This is the end of the endless way; the limit of the limitless ascent; Incomprehensibility reveals Himself in the very fact of His being incomprehensible, for his incomprehensibility is rooted in the fact that God is not only Nature but also Three Persons; the incomprehensible Nature is incomprehensible inasmuch as it is the Nature of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost; God, incomprehensible because Trinity yet manifesting Himself as Trinity. Here apophaticism finds its fulfillment in the revelation of the Holy Trinity as primordial fact, ultimate reality, first datum which cannot be deduced, explained or discovered by way of any other truth; for there is nothing which is prior to it. Apophatic thought, renouncing every support, finds its support in God, whose incomprehensibility appears as Trinity. Here thought gains a stability which cannot be shaken; theology finds its foundation; ignorance passes into knowledge.”

In God’s nature or substance, that “stuff” (if you’ll forgive the vulgar imprecision) of which God is, God is utterly unknowable because God is outside and above and beyond us.  But in God’s hypostases, the Tri-Personal God has made himself known to us.  The Mystery has given us a glimpse; not a full view everything, of course, for that would be like asking to stare at the sun when it is one block away.

But what we can know about this God, what God has revealed to us in Scripture, through the teaching of Apostles, Saints, and Doctors of the Church, and most especially through life of Jesus, we gladly and happily confess as the Most Blessed Trinity.

Ignorance passes into knowledge, and theology has its foundation.

To misappropriate the apophatic as an excuse to feign ignorance of God is not only wrong according to every possible standard of Christian truth, it is tragic.  The Mystery at the heart of all reality has opened a door, as it were, and given us a glimpse inside.

Who are we to shut it?

Source: Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1998), 63-64 (emphasis added).

Heresy As Extremism: Why the Middle Way is the Narrow Way

Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.
Icon of Gregory the Great, from monasteryicons.com.

“Sincerity is no guarantee of being correct.”

-Rev. Dr. Mickey Efird

The lies of heresy are not just false, they are false in the extreme.

We’ve examined before in this space how heresy flattens the mysteries of the gospel.  The great doctrines of the church, the Incarnation and Trinity, are in a real sense names for mysteries.  These mysteries the church, we believe, has been led to confess by the Holy Spirit.  In so confessing, we preserve and celebrate the mystery of God and God’s mighty saving work.  Heresy always simplifies that mystery to something more palatable and less gospel.

But heresy can also be understood as a form of extremism.  Jaroslav Pelikan, near the end of Volume 1 of The Christian Tradition, notes, “It was characteristic of heretics that they erred in one extreme or the other, denying either the One or the Three, either despising marriage or denigrating virginity.”  It is worth mentioning that Pelikan, the now-deceased don of church history at Yale, writes this after multiple chapters spent painstakingly quoting and examining what the heretics themselves wrote.  He then quotes Gregory the Great:

“But the church, by contrast, proceeds with ordered composure midway between the quarrels on both sides. It knows how to accept the higher good in such a way as simultaneously to venerate the lower, because it neither puts the highest on the same level with the lowest nor on the other hand despises the lowest when it venerates the highest.” (334-335)

If you’ve ever ridden a bicycle, you know that just a little ways this or that and you will take a tumble.  So it is with orthodoxy.  Precision in thought, as in machinery, only tolerates so much wiggle room. Chesterton noted that many are shocked at the vitriolic arguments about small points of doctrine, but they do so because they fail to recognize that there are no small points about the Divine:

“…it is exactly this which explains what is so inexplicable to all the modern critics of the history of Christianity. I mean the monstrous wars about small points of theology, the earthquakes of emotion about a gesture or a word. It was only a matter of an inch; but an inch is everything when you are balancing. The Church could not afford to swerve a hair’s breadth on some things if she was to continue her great and daring experiment of the irregular equilibrium. Once let one idea become less powerful and some other idea would become too powerful. It was no flock of sheep the Christian shepherd was leading, but a herd of bulls and tigers, of terrible ideals and devouring doctrines, each one of them strong enough to turn to a false religion and lay waste the world. Remember that the Church went in specifically for dangerous ideas; she was a lion tamer. The idea of birth through a Holy Spirit, of the death of a divine being, of the forgiveness of sins, or the fulfillment of prophecies, are ideas which, any one can see, need but a touch to turn them into something blasphemous or ferocious.”

chesterton orthodoxyHeresy, even in the lightest of touches or turns, always perverts Christian truth into something “blasphemous or ferocious,” something extreme.  The Arians, sincere though they were, turned Christians into creature-worshippers.  The gnostic-influenced Christians, who’ve strangely enjoyed a kind of foolish re-appropriation of their literature in the last couple of decades, denied the good not only of God’s creation but the truth of the Incarnation as an affirmation of the physical order (modern Darbyism does something similar with its false doctrine of the rapture).

An inch is everything when you are balancing.

This not only inveighs against those who wish to deconstruct orthodoxy as some kind of conservative fantasy, it also points us to why pious rhetoric that pits “the middle way” against “the narrow way” is ultimately false.  In terms of doctrine, the middle way – the balancing of heretical extremes in order to discover the one way to stand tall amid a thousand ways to totter over – is the narrow way.

Thus we can conceive of heresy, like Pelikan, as extremism.  Examples might include: emphasizing the transcendence of God to the detriment of the immanence of God; emphasizing works of piety so as to leave aside works of mercy; dogmatically adhering to classical Christian teaching in one area of sexuality while completely ignoring others; a simplistic biblicism that ignores experience and tradition (or, on the other hand, a Romantic attachment to experience which runs amok over scripture and tradition); or finally, as Bonhoeffer famously noted, grace divorced from the cross.

An inch is everything when you are balancing, which is why the narrow way of Christian truth is also the middle way.  I’ll let Chesterton have the last word:

“It is easy to be a madman; it is easy to be a heretic.  it is always easy to let the age have its head; the difficult thing is to keep one’s head.  It is always easy to be a modernist; as it is easy to be a snob.  To have fallen into any of those open traps of error and exaggeration which fashion after fashion and sect after sect set along the historic path of Christendom – that would indeed have been simple.  It is always simple to fall; there are an infinity of angles at which one falls, only one at which one stands.”

How to Recognize Evil

The famous 15th cent. Rublev icon of the Most Blessed Trinity.  Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The famous 15th cent. Rublev icon of the Most Blessed Trinity. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

We live in an age where the language of good vs. evil is not appreciated.  Hyper-postmodernity would have us believe that every truth claim is merely an assertion of power, so no truth claim holds value.  Bullshit.

Here’s how to recognize evil:

Love unites. Evil divides.  It’s a simple premise that, if you accept it and begin to look for it, you’ll see everywhere.  Churches. Families. Communities. And of course, on to whole nations and regions of the globe.

Love brings things together in ways that are life-affirming.  In marriage, two become “one flesh” and join lives, hearts, and wills.  Communities form when individuals become neighbors.  Countries form when communities come together for the common good.

Evil is the opposite.  Evil makes a marriage a contract between two individuals rather than a covenant bond.  Evil turns community members into bitter, envious, hateful, and prejudiced rivals competing for scarce resources.  Evil turns nation against nation.

As Augustine noted, evil has no force on its own. Evil can only ever be a parasite.  It is a privation of the good only possible wherever the good is found.

God (who is love) became united with humanity for our salvation, to unite us to God and to each other. As St. Maximos the Confessor observed (emphasis mine):

“In His love for man God became man so that He might unite human nature to Himself and stop it from acting evilly towards itself, or rather from being at strife and divided against itself, and from having no rest because of the instability of its will and purpose. Nothing sequent to God is more precious for beings endowed with intellect, or rather is more dear to God, than perfect love; for love unites those who have been divided and is able to create a single identity of will and purpose, free from faction, among many or among all; for the property of love is to produce a single will and purpose in those who seek what pertains to it.  If by nature the good unifies and holds together what has been separated, evil clearly divides and corrupts what has been unified. For evil is by nature dispersive, unstable, multiform and divisive.”

Evil is the power of entropy, the power to corrupt, to rot, to destroy that which God has joined together in love.  Division is the way of the world (it’s no accident that Christians are often enjoined to flee it, after all).  It’s hard for people, even with much in common, to be united in the bond of love; pride and experience and competing narratives all get in the way.

But let’s be clear: God’s will, the ultimate Good, is not for division but for loving unity.  As God has been revealed to us as a unity of persons who are distinct but still united in will, purpose, and love – a mystery we name Trinity – so God’s will for us, His people, is that we might know that same purely other-regarding love in our lives.  A high calling, but one worthy of our best efforts, despite the difficulties and many differences which too easily divide us.

May that effort be found abundantly among us: as wives and husbands, as communities, and particularly as the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Body of Christ.  As David Watson has suggested, such unity is not primarily institutional but spiritual. In a world bent on incarnating the evils of division along every possible line, let us resist that tide and pray for the power of the Holy Spirit to instead live as Paul exhorted the church at Ephesus:

“…with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4:2-6, NRSV)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Source: “First Century Various Texts,” from the Philokalia: Volume 2  (London: Faber & Faber 1981), 174.  If the Philokalia is unfamiliar to you, I highly recommend it and this helpful interview with the great Orthodox leader Metropolitan Kallistos Ware.

The Gospel According to Frank Underwood

[Warning: Spoilers about a very intense Season 3 House of Cards scene, and broader HOC spoilers, below.]

Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Photo of Kevin Spacey by Sarah Ackerman, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

What does Frank Underwood believe about Jesus? As Underwood, Kevin Spacey masterfully plays the House of Cards protagonist, a character with moral abandon seldom seen on the small or large screen.  In season 3, just released by Netflix, now-President Underwood is not showing any signs of slowing down.  He (literally) urinates on the memory of his ancestors to open the season, and an episode 4 ethical dilemma finds him talking ethics with a Bishop late one night in a church.  Spacey’s Underwood is so skillfully sleezy that we almost believe him when he tells the good Bishop he wants a few moments alone to pray.

C’mon, do you really think Frank is going to pray to anyone but himself? (To be fair, he has conversed with Satan on screen as well.)  Of course not.  He stares up a crucifix, shares a few critical words with Jesus, and then spits upon it – a treatment not unlike what the real Jesus endured on the cross, actually.  As you can imagine, this scene shocked audiences.  Much has been made of this scene, but the broader implications of his conversation with and about the Son of God has been largely ignored. Here’s a snippet, edited down to the relevant statements:

Underwood: “I understand the Old Testament God, whose power is absolute, who rules through fear, but…him?” [points to crucifix]

Bishop: “There’s no such thing as absolute power for us, except on the receiving end….Two rules: Love God. Love each other. Period.  You weren’t chosen, Mr. President. Only he [Jesus] was.”

(Frank asks for alone time to pray.)

Underwood – looking up at crucifix: “Love? That’s what you’re selling. Well, I don’t buy it.”  [Spits]

Frank, without knowing it, has just made a theological argument for a very old Christian heresy.  Notice the strong division between the  “Old Testament God” and Jesus.  For Underwood, the OT deity is a being of power and intimidation, and, while he doesn’t elaborate, his attitude towards Jesus on the cross indicates he understands the discontinuity: this Jesus wields power very differently than does the fictional President.  This bifurcation between the Old and New Testaments, even to the point of asserting the centrality of different deities to each, is called Marcionism.  The definition from Theopedia is helpful:

“Marcionism was an early heresy led by Marcion, who proposed the first canon of Christian texts. The proposed canon consisted of the Gospel of Luke and several of Paul’s epistles; however, Marcion edited the writings by deleting any references that appeared to approve of the Old Testament and the creator God of the Jews. Marcionism thus rejected the Old Testament God, claiming that Jesus represented the true sovereign God who was different from the God of the Hebrew people.”

Underwood expresses a sentiment that is still not uncommon today, though typically less developed than Marcion’s own views.  Here in the Bible Belt, you even occasionally drive by churches that advertise themselves as “New Testament Christians,” whatever the hell that means.

It’s no surprise that Frank’s gospel is a false one, a heresy (to be fair, he’s kind of an inverse Marcionite, since he identifies with the “Old Testament Deity” that Marcion rejected).  What is a surprise, a problem even now, is how easily we still buy into Marcion’s lie today.  Make no mistake: the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament both contain the revelation of the one God’s gracious activity towards us, God’s creatures.  Where Marcion posited radical discontinuity, the orthodox position has always on a strong connection between the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament.  There is a beauty to the canon, which is no surprise if you believe (as Christians do) that the 66 books of our Bible represent a beautiful library in which everywhere God is revealed in  loving self-disclosure.

The life and witness of Jesus makes no sense without an appreciation of the Old Testament narrative.  There is no understanding Jesus and his mission apart from his role as Israel’s Messiah, fulfilling the promise to Abraham to “bless many nations” as the Suffering Servant of Isaiah.  This same Jesus is sent by and begotten of the Father and united with the Spirit, one God in Triunity, who (Christians believe) is none other than the God confessed still by Jews in the Shema: “Hear O Israel, your God is one.”

Two Testaments. One God.  Frank Underwood is a very effective politician, but as a theologian he is a pure heretic.

An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.
An icon of the Holy Trinity, based on the famed Rublev Icon.

The good news is that God’s loving action is revealed in both Testaments, which tell the story of a God radically committed to His creation.  So committed, in fact, that God abdicated all God’s power  and, in Christ, subjected Himself to the totality of wrath, sin, evil, and abandonment that vexes humanity, and submitted to death on our behalf.  In submitting to death, it was conquered, and we were healed.

To Frank Underwood, and to us, the cross is and always remains a scandal.  After all, a God of power is comprehensible, recognizable on the world’s terms.  But what earthly ruler – a Nietzschean like Underwood, a Caesar, or a Putin – would dare endorse the seeming naiveté of a God who gives up power out of selfless, other-regarding love for ungrateful creatures who will ultimately put God to death rather than submit to His Kingdom of love and mercy?

Thus St. Paul said to the Corinthians,

“The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are being destroyed. But it is the power of God for those of us who are being saved.” (1 Cor. 1:18, CEB)

At least Underwood is honest enough to know that he cannot conduct his affairs as he does and also worship the God who hangs on a cross. Frank understands the foolishness of the cross.  But now the question is to us, followers of the risen Lord. Do we, “who are being saved,” embrace the foolishness that is the cross?

I conclude with the words of Charles Wesley, who captures both the pain and the beauty, the incomprehensibility and the glory of the cross in his excellent hymn:

O Love divine, what has thou done!
The immortal God hath died for me!
The Father’s coeternal Son
bore all my sins upon the tree.
Th’ immortal God for me hath died:
My Lord, my Love, is crucified!

When Progressive Christianity Nukes the Fridge

The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.
The death of a great franchise, courtesy Blastr.

I try to be an equal-opportunity critic of both ends of the Christian spectrum.  That’s not to say I don’t have friends on both ends that I love and respect (I certainly do), and it’s not to say I haven’t found myself on both ends of the spectrum (I have).  But there comes a time when the ideological leanings become more important than the faith; the tail wags the dog, and little identifiably Christian substrate remains.   Conservative Christianity can, if unchecked, devolve into fundamentalism or state religion.  Progressive Christianity, on the other side of the coin, can devolve into paganism or mere activism.  It is the latter I wish to address here, using two examples that recently came to my attention.

Exhibit A: The “8 Points of Progressive Christianity”

Found at ProgressiveChristianity.org, these 8 points offer a rallying cry for at least one brand of Christian progressivism (more on that distinction later).  On my reading, these 8 points say:

  • Jesus is about having an experience of the divine that is no more valid than anyone else’s.
  • There are many paths to experiencing this “Oneness” of the universe.
  • Questions are (absolutely?) more important than absolutes.
  • We should all be really, really nice to each other.

Notice what is absent? No mention of truth, or revelation, or Scripture as inspired or even useful.  Jesus is a window to the cosmic soup of love and warm feelings, but there is no indication he is any more special than Gandhi or Steve Jobs.  And of course, no mention of the Trinity.  Which brings me to…

Exhibit B: “Christianity” Beyond the Trinity

Mark Sandlin, a former Presbyterian pastor (who I think is, somehow, still ordained) says “no thank you” to the Trinity:

“I’m not saying the theory of Trinity is wrong. I’m just not saying it’s definitively right, which is exactly what many of its adherents do when they say that if you don’t believe in the Trinity, you can’t be Christian.”

Actually, confession (no one confesses a theory, after all) of the Trinity has been the distinctive mark of Christians from very early on.  Did it take a while to work out? Yes.  The Church had to wrestle for a while, but once the dust settled, this has been established doctrine for those who would claim to be Christians for over a millennia.  No amount of Dan Brown conspiracies about “power” and “politics” changes that.  Would Christianity be an easier “sell” without this particular mystery? Of course.  But that’s just not how God has revealed Godself to us.  Heresy always simplifies God’s amazing and profound revelation.

There’s a term among nerds called Jumping the Shark, based on an especially ridiculous episode of Happy Days.  Now, thanks to Stephen Spielberg’s public defecation named Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, we have a new term: Nuking the Fridge.  I posit that when Progressive Christianity can no longer affirm basic Christian doctrine, when open season is declared on essentials like the Trinity, the fridge has been thoroughly “nuked.”

Conclusion: Don’t Nuke the Fridge

I have many friends who are progressive Christians.  By that, I mean they lean politically left, but their heart is sold-out to Jesus.  Their allegiance is to him before it is to any ideology, and their political action is informed by a deep love of Scripture and the calling of the church.  They are orthodox Christians who happen to be progressives.

But then there are those who claim to be Christians but clearly have no use for Christianity.  Their ideology is paramount, and only a thin  veneer of anything identifiably Christian can be found.  They are progressives who occasionally talk about Jesus.

That, to me, is the distinction between Christian Progressivism and Progressive Christianity.  Christian Progressivism is a form of syncretism, in which two faiths are merged into one unholy, idolatrous union.  Progressive Christianity is a popular movement among those who have found refuge from evangelism and fundamentalism, and has much to offer the Church universal.  Folks like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo were quite helpful to me in my journey out of fundamentalism.

So if you want to be a progressive and you are a Christian, good on you.  The church needs your voice. But don’t put the cart before the horse. And don’t nuke that fridge.

Good Friday, Trinity, and Atonement

Image

For many Christians, Good Friday brings up aspects of Christianity they would prefer to minimize, or leave behind entirely.  Themes like sacrifice, suffering, guilt, and blood make many followers of Christ uncomfortable.  Jeremy Smith has recently argued in favor of moving the locus of atonement further away from the cross.  Indeed, the cross remains to followers of Jesus what it was to people in the ancient world: foolishness and a stumbling-block. (1 Cor. 1:23)

In Death on a Friday Afternoon, Fr. Richard Neuhaus explores various attempts to re-imagine the atonement and finds them wanting.  He looks at the cross through the lens of liberal, existentialist, and liberationist theologies and finds in them little to no hope at all.  But neither is he (pardon the expression) satisfied with expressions of atonement that emphasize the wrath of God the Father punishing Jesus on the cross.  Instead, he suggests we see the cross as an act of love by the whole of that great mystery we name as God: the Trinity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The book as a whole is marvelous, and I would commend it to your reading. The section to which I refer is worth quoting in its entirety:

“We do well to get rid completely of the notion that the atonement is about what God did to Jesus. This requires returning to the truth that the God who brought about our atonement is the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Atonement is from beginning to end the work of the three divine Persons of the triune God. In collusion with the Father, the Son, in the power of the Spirit, freely takes our part by becoming our representative.  A representative is different from a substitute. The atonement is not a quantitative matter. It is not as through there is a certain amount of wrong for which a certain amount of punishment is due, and so somebody must be found to take the punishment. That way of thinking produced the ritual of the scapegoat, a ritual reenacted in many different ways throughout history. Christ’s atoning sacrifice is not about quantitates of sin and punishment but is intensely personal. It is the mending of a personal relationship between God and humanity that had been broken.

Justice requires that  satisfaction be made; we were and we are in no position to make such satisfaction. Jesus Christ actively intervenes on our behalf, he freely takes our part in healing the breach between God and humanity by the sacrifice of the cross.  To speak of a collusion between the Persons of the triune God suggests the word ‘conspiracy.’ It is a helpful word when we remember that conspire means, quite literally, ‘to breathe together.’ in the beginning, God breathes life into Adam; Jesus breathes upon the disciples and says, ‘receive the Holy Spirit.’ The triune God conspires for our salvation. The entire plan is love from beginning to end, and the fullness of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – is engaged every step of the way.  It is not an angry Father punishing an innocent Son, with the Spirit on the sidelines helplessly watching. No, it is the Father, Son, and Spirit conspiring together to save us from ourselves.  At the Father’s command, the Son freely goes forth in the power of the Spirit to become one of us.  On our behalf, as Representative Humanity, he lives the life of perfect obedience that Adam – and all of us ‘in Adam’ – failed to live. And he completes that life by dying the perfect death.” (220-221)

The cross is a conspiracy of love by the triune God.  That’s why we call it Good Friday, and that’s why we run away from the cross to our peril.  Let us, with John the Baptist, behold and marvel at “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” (John 1:29) Thanks be to God.

“Straight to that Trinity”: Augustine on Participation with God

In Book IX, Chapter 15 of the City of God, St. Augustine discusses the mediating work of Jesus Christ, who became incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and opened up the way of life to all:

“…but the mortal and blessed Mediator interposed Himself, in order that, having passed through mortality, He might of mortals make immortals (showing His power to do this in His own resurrection).”

Arguing against the pagan mythology of the Romans, he argues that only one who was at once mortal and immortal, human and divine, could bring humanity up to the heights of divinity. The demons (his word for the minor gods and demigods of the Roman pantheon), he says, cannot achieve this, because though they are like the true God in immortality, they are unlike him in their corruption.  There are no mediators between God and humanity other than the Christ:

“…He is mediator as He is man, for by His humanity He shows us that, in order to obtain that blessed and beatific good, we need not seek other mediators to lead us through the successive steps of this attainment [sounds kind of like the via salutis?], but that the blessed and beatific God, having Himself become a partaker of our humanity, has afforded us ready access to the participation of His divinity.  For in delivering us from our mortality and misery, He does not lead us to the immortal and blessed angels, so that we should become immortal and blessed by participating in their nature, but He leads us straight to that Trinity, by participating in which the angels themselves are blessed.”

Douglas Campbell helped me to see how vital this participatory element is in New Testament soteriology; we are not merely saved by some divine transaction in the heavenly ledger, but rather that the Holy Spirit, through all the means of grace, conforms us to the death and resurrection of Christ.  Thus the divine image is restored in us- we are saved – to the extent that we participate in the life of the Triune God. Augustine concludes this section by reminding us that Jesus reveals both the true way of life on earth and in heaven:

“Therefore, when He chose to be in the form of a servant, and lower than the angels, that He might be our Mediator, He remained higher than the angels, in the form of God – himself at once the way of life on earth and life itself in heaven.”

Start with Three, and Preserve the Mystery: Thoughts on Trinity Sunday

“So I start here with two principles: (1) Trinitarian terminology should function less to explain the mystery than to preserve it; (2) thinking about the Trinity should move from the three to the one rather than the other way round.” (William Placher, The Triune God, 121)

Trinity Sunday is one of those rented mules of the liturgical calendar; it is there by tradition and necessity, but we often don’t know how to treat it – whether lay or clergy.  The result is typically one of two alternatives: a complete avoidance of the observation (no less an option in Methodist and other semi-liturgical circles than in “non-denominational” and free church communities) or some heretical claptrap that tries to “explain” the greatest mystery of the church with some inane banalities or make it “relevant” (read: about us more than about God). None of these are good options, and both miss the point: as Christians we need to know this God!trinity shield

As one of my seminary professors, Dr. Freeman, used to say, “In the South we are all ‘functional Unitarians.'”  That is, in the Bible Belt we are great at talking about Jesus day in and day out, but we are fuzzy if not totally ignorant about the doctrine of the Trinity and the relationship of the “Three-One” God (to use Wesley’s phrase).  In my own preparation for preaching this day, I found flipping back through the late William Placher’s The Triune God: An Essay in Postliberal Theology a helpful exercise.

The postliberal bent to Placher’s work is evident throughout.  That is, he draws on the work of the so-called “Yale School” influenced especially by George Lindbeck and Hans Frei.  The postliberals focus on Christian language as constitutive of belief and practice; Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine puts forth the thesis that dogma functions as a kind of grammar for Christian speech, and  thereby he – heavily influenced by Barth – insists on a third way beyond the estranged twins of fundamentalism and liberalism (hence the name of the school, “Postliberal”). Barth’s Christocentrism and the centrality of the Biblical narrative come through heavily in Placher’s reflections.  Consider the following:

“…Christians start knowing God in God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ, in Jesus’ references to the one he called “Father,” and in the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete Jesus promised, who forms and sustains our faith.  The task of any doctrine of the Trinity is thus not to show how an abstract one is three, but to show that these three are one, and this is not an unnecessary complication but something essential to what Christians believe.” (120)

Few things are more harmful to Christian faith and life than the confusion of the Triune God revealed in the life, witness, death, and resurrection of Jesus with the kind of generic, uninvolved God that seems to be the dominant God “believed” by most Americans. (See Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian for more here.)  Because we know God first through Jesus, Placher asserts, we start with three and move to one, rather than vice-versa.  This is precisely not an academic exercise but rather an attempt to be faithful to the Biblical narrative through which God has revealed himself to us:

“What the early theologians said was…something like this: We know from Scripture that the Son is not the Father, for the Son prays to the Father with an intensity that cannot be playacting.  We know that the Spirit is Another the Father will send, and not the same as the Son.  We know that there is one God, and yet we pray to the Son and the Spirit, and count on them to participate in our salvation in a way that would be blasphemous if they were other than God.  We need some terms in order to say that God is both one and three, and so we devise such terms, but it is only beyond this life, in the vision of God, that we will understand how God is both one and three.” (130)

Praise be to God that we are not left with an uninteresting, generic Divinity, but a God who is love itself, a God who not only calls us to love but embodies perfect love as a Trinity of persons – distinct but not different, Three and yet One – a God whose being is not other than the perfect outpouring of grace upon grace. And praise be that this is not a God we can prove through mathematical proof or scientific experimentation, but a God who is beyond our categories and above our feeble attempts at description.  What has thus far been revealed to us is amazing, but more astonishing still is how great the depths of mystery there will be to plumb for all of eternity, when we see this God with sight unobstructed.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Preaching and Theology: Let the Twain Meet

Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:”

-Charles Wesley

Are you a preacher? Are you a Christian? You should read this.

Today I was privileged to spend the day listening to Bishop Will Willimon lecture on Barth & preaching.  He reminded us that Barth’s own preaching was gloriously naive in technique, and unapologetically theological in content.  Too often, preaching is considered a pragmatic task and theology as an academic or purely intellectual pursuit.  True theology, however,  is always wedded to proclamation, because it is concerned with speaking truthfully about the God revealed in Christ Jesus. As the Orthodox say, “The one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is the one who prays.”

Similarly, preaching that is not theological will descend into mere sentimentality or utility (sermons that are either aimed at making people “feel good” or being “useful”).  We have far too many theologians who have lost their vocation as teachers of the church and proclaimers of the Word made flesh, and certainly a plethora of preachers who have forgotten that the center of their preaching is a crucified Jew from Nazareth who came neither to make us feel good nor to give us useful ideas about life.

My teacher Michael Pasquarello* has a beautifully rich vision of preaching, of which I was reminded today.  In his excellent Christian Preaching, he argues for a rediscovery of preaching as a theological task of the Church which is centered on the Triune God, exclusive of all other homiletic foci:

“Christian preaching, then, is theological rhetoric, a gift of the Spirit in which Christ, the incarnate Word spoken by the Father, condescended to indwell Scripture and the church, himself speaking the restoration and fulfillment of creation by confessing the praise of the Creator.” (p. 56)

Like the best preaching, that definition is beautiful, wonderfully deep, and thoroughly Trinitarian.  The wall between preaching and theology has been, in many places, been erected for too long.  Tear down this wall.  Let the twain meet.

 

 

*By a happy accident, I was able to take preaching with Pasquarello even though I was at Duke and he teaches at Asbury.  It’s a story that is longer than it is interesting, but suffice it to say he is an excellent teacher and a preacher-theologian I greatly respect.

Cage Match: Evil vs. Stupidity

If evil and stupidity were in a UFC cage match, like the one coming up this weekend, who would win? According to Bonhoeffer, Couture would be stupidity and Minotauro would be evil.  In other words, stupidity is more dangerous than evil.

From Bonhoeffer’s Ethics:

Stupidity is a more dangerous enemy of the good than evil is.  Against evil, one can protest; it can be exposed and, if necessary, stopped with force.  Evil always carries the seed of its own self-destruction, because it at least leaves people with a feeling of uneasiness.  But against stupidity, we are defenseless. Neither with protest nor with force can we do anything here; reasons have no effect…Therefore, more care must be taken in regard to stupidity than to evil…

This is today’s selection from my ‘Year with Bonhoeffer’ devotional.  It is the kind of daily reading that makes many of the more tedious ones worth while.  To put it bluntly, I think Bonhoeffer is still right.  Of course, his point is all the more poignant because he died in the active opposition to evil.

Interesting note, here he is blunt that there are times when evil must be opposed with force.  Contrary to contemporary Christian pacifists like Hauerwas who have tried to make him a hero of nonviolence, here he seems clear (like Augustine against the Donatists) that force is a moral imperative.

We live in an age of stupidity.  Cynicism passes for analysis (Jon Stewart).  Nihilism may be the ideology of the day (tragically on the rise in academia and popular culture.  Joel Osteen passes for a preacher.  MTV passes for entertainment.  ‘Reality TV’ simply is not.  Stupidity.  I say again, stupidity.  As the author of Ecclesiastes put it, “Vanity, vanity, all is vanity.”

How is it opposed?  In the unity of truth and love, as Benedict recently reiterated it.  If stupidity is the order of the day, intelligence consists in coming into a life-giving relationship with the Father of Lights, the Son of God, and the Spirit of Truth, and being a part of a community that lives into that Trinitarian life with each breath.  No, this is not easy.  Nor is this a dismissive answer.  In an age of bullet points, Twitter, and headlines, Christians must stand for the truth of the eternal, uncreated, simple and unknowable, mysterious, awesome, loving God who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   In comparison, all else is at best evil and at worst, stupid.

Side note: I do hope, when this match occurs, that “Big John” McCarthy is the ref.  Otherwise it is likely to end prematurely or controversially.